Prison is the Punishment. Not a Place for Further Punishment

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Prison cell

Last week, we reported on the case of Bassam Hamzy, founder of Brothers 4 Life and convicted murderer, who is currently incarcerated at Goulburn’s “Supermax” prison.

Hamzy is prohibited from speaking Arabic in gaol. Muslim inmates are also barred from carrying the Koran, reciting the call to prayer and buying Halal meals.

Hamzy has recently filed proceedings in the NSW Supreme Court against Corrective Services, on the basis that he is being denied religious freedom, which is a right guaranteed under section 116 of the Australian Constitution.

The reaction to Hamzy’s claim

An article on Hamzy was recently posted on the Sydney Criminal Lawyers® Facebook page, and a barrage of comments followed, many of which agreed that Hamzy is getting what he deserves and that inmates should lose all of their rights.

“He is in gaol, he has lost his privileges, he knowingly came to live in a basically ‘Christian country’,” proclaimed one social media user. “What does he expect?”

Another said that while a person is in prison “there should be no privileges whatsoever” – that inmates forfeit their rights to “live a normal life,” if they have been convicted of a crime.

A third posed the question, “Isn’t the whole point of being in prison to remove privileges that are afforded to law abiding citizens?”

But is it the “whole point”?

Judges have noted over and over that people are sent to prison to be deprived of their freedom: that is the punishment. They are not sent there to have their basic rights taken away or be mistreated – rights are not a privilege.

And neither is it a requirement that inmates undergo further punishments once their prison sentence has been handed down.

Extra punishment meted out in a US prison

Take the case of the Idaho Correctional Centre (ICC) in the United States. Back in 2010, this facility was well-known for a high number of prisoner-on-prisoner assaults.

In fact, Rachel Bloom, advocacy and policy strategist for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), wrote that, “ICC staff not only condones violence amongst prisoners, it encourages and facilitates it as a management tool.”

ICC is operated by the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), which is the largest operator of private prisons in the US.

In March 2010, the ACLU filed a class action federal lawsuit against the CCA, with the plaintiff’s complaint chronicling more than twenty violent assaults.

The case was settled out of court in September that year and the CCA agreed to make improvements to the way it operated the facility.

As Ms Bloom put it, “In the United States, individuals are sent to prison as punishment, not for punishment.” And that unwarranted punishment would include being beaten up in the prison yard.

On August 18 this year, the Obama administration announced it planned to end the federal government’s use of private prisons, after a report found there was increased violence in the facilities, fewer resources and ineffective costs.

Within an hour of the news, CCA’s shares had fallen by 52 percent, dropping from $27 per share to $13.

The abolition of prison

But there are those in the US who go even further and call for the abolition of prisons.

In September of this year, the largest prison strike in US history took place, when tens of thousands of inmates from over 40 prisons across 24 states stopped work.

SCL spoke with spoke with Azzurra Crispino, media co-chair of the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee – one of the main organisers behind the work stoppages – at the time of the strike.

“We want to see an end to prisons, period,” Ms Crispino said. The committee wants to establish a system of reformist justice, where those convicted of a crime would undertake community-based rehabilitation, instead of incarceration.

The Swedish prison system

Then there’s the Swedish model, with its rehabilitation focus. People sentenced under their system are treated as individuals with needs to be assisted and helped. And prisoners are referred to as “clients” there.

“Our role is not to punish. The punishment is the prison sentence,” Nils Öberg, director general of Sweden’s prison and probation service told the Guardian in 2014. “The punishment is that they are with us.”

In Sweden, it’s understood that inmates suffer many issues in their lives from drugs to psychiatric problems. As most sentences are relatively short, those within the prison system begin working with inmates from day one, to help deal with their “whole range of problems.”

In the period 2004 to 2014, the Swedish prison population fell from 5,722 to 4,500 and since 2010, four of the country’s 56 prisons have been closed.

Mr Öberg said that the Swedish public have a lot of anger when it comes to crime, but they realise that most prisoners will return to society.

“There is a fair amount of understanding that the more we can do during this small window of opportunity when people are deprived of their liberty,” Öberg explained, “the better it will be in the long run.”

Calls for reforms in Australia

Back in Australia, there’s been calls for reforming the criminal justice system for quite some time. SCL recently spoke with former NSW judge John Nicholson SC.

In his time as a judge, he was a great believer in utilising the Section 11, which means a person is found guilty, but sentencing is deferred and a rehabilitation program is recommended.

Mr Nicholson said the current sentencing model in Australia is too tough. “There are too many reasons to send people to gaol, in a situation where gaol is counter-productive,” he explained. “Nobody comes out of gaol better than when they went it.”

According to Mr Nicholson, prison should be a “last resort.” More money should be spend on reform programs and “the court ought to be supervising more people for a longer time, before they’re put in gaol.”

The prison system in Australia currently has an over-representation of Indigenous Australians, produces high recidivism rates and there are poor social outcomes for inmates once they leave.

Writing in the Conversation, research fellow Paul Simpson and professor Tony Butler both from the University of NSW, see a need to move towards decarceration polices in Australia.

However, they believe the community needs to understand and demand this change that will “shift the criminal justice emphasis away from imprisonment and towards its alternatives.”

But for the time being it’s seems the Australian criminal justice system will continue with its focus on incarceration and the question still remains as to whether prisoners like Bassam Hamzy should be deprived of their basic rights.

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Paul Gregoire

Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He's the winner of the 2021 NSW Council for Civil Liberties Award For Excellence In Civil Liberties Journalism. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, Paul wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.

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